'BREATHE' is a "Jack Edwards" action novel by Chuck Duncan

Thanks for coming to my site. I'll keep it short. You can see the cover of my book, read the preface, prologue and first chapter and see where it is being published. I hope you enjoy the book, and if so, please leave a good review with Amazon or whomever you purchased it from. If you didn't enjoy the book, leave a good review with Amazon or whomever you purchased it from..... 8-{) One last thing. PLEASE spread the word by getting your friends to check it out as well. At 99 cents for 450 pages of action, romance, adventure and some good old fasioned common sense, what has anyone got to lose?
 
"A best seller!" Sandra Volkerink
"A story that needs to be told" Ronald Duncan M.A. (Yes, this is my Dad)
"Oh my God, it's so good!" Laura Love
"I never wanted to put it down." Donald Evans M.A.
 
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PREFACE

Phoenix, Arizona in the 1960’s did not escape the chaos that was gripping the country. The division between the classes exacerbated by the policies of a ruling class Government had sparked unrest among those who were systemically deprived of advantages. Corruption poisoned the communities situated on the wrong side of the tracks. Criminals operated with impunity as the Police routinely looked away. The streets of these neighborhoods were as dangerous as any place on Earth.

But, through it all, love and compassion found their way into the lives of those most affected. The power of these emotions proves to be the key to unraveling the nightmare that threatened the very fabric of the country.

          Jack Edwards, a white, middle class Viet Nam veteran who grew up in Phoenix, Arizona falls in love with Emma Long, a beautiful and intelligent negro woman from a south central neighborhood of Phoenix: an area mostly known for unemployment, derelict homes and criminal violence. Thrown together after the death of Emma’s brother, they find happiness and intense pleasure in their growing relationship. They find a renewed appreciation for life as they explore each other’s souls, becoming lost in a world that exists only for those deep in the throes of new love. Tragically, violence once again enters their lives. Death, assaults and rape forge their way into the lives of the two as they become entwined in a whirlwind of racial hatred, drugs, police corruption and the ultimate retribution, shattering the illusion of happiness that they had created for themselves.

Amidst the tumultuous events of the time, Ruffus Smith, an elder in the negro community, chooses to face the growing corruption that was destroying the south central Phoenix neighborhood he had lived in most of his life; the same neighborhood in which his wife was murdered. He befriends Jack and they soon find themselves forced to take the law into their own hands. The actions of a bigoted and brutal police sergeant and that of an entrenched negro gangster lead Jack and Ruffus to a level of violence that Jack had experienced only during his two tours in Viet Nam, something he never expected to encounter in his own country.

Jack and Emma are forced to face a deadly reality together; Emma reaching deeper in to her soul than she ever though possible. Their love is tested as they struggle to find the strength to deal with an unrelenting violence. At the worst possible time Jack is recalled to South East Asia where he is enlisted as part of a team that slips into North Viet Nam on a secret mission that could put an end to the war. He quickly learns the cold, hard reality of why wars are fought.

Colonel J.B. Lindsay U.S.M.C. has seen it all; he has a secret that shakes Jack and Emma’s world to the foundation. Things are never as they seem, and once the curtain is pulled they are never the same again. 

 

                                                                                 Prologue

      Websters dictionary carries four descriptions for the word Breathe: (breethe) 1) to inhale and exhale, 2) to halt for rest,  3) to utter softly,  4) to Live

      It’s all about breath, your first to your last. Nothing is more important or relevant to life. There is nothing you can do without drawing breath, at least not for very damned long. Exhaling, ironically, is also important. As a kid, Jack remembered his dad’s encouraging him to hold his breath and swim underwater all the way from one end of the swimming pool in their back yard to the other. Every time Jack tried, panic overtook his sensibilities. He just couldn’t seem to get enough air into his lungs. Fearing a grim and dark drowning death, he would surface, gasping, well before reaching his father’s goal. Although he developed better lung capacity later in life, he learned that he could still only hold his breath for a few seconds without panicking.

           --He came to understand that that was long enough--

 

  

BREATHE

CHAPTER 1

ARIZONA REPUBLIC   April 27, 1967                      

byline Howard Dossett

Late last night the body of a man in his late thirties was found in the area of Thomas and Central Avenue with a single bullet hole in his forehead. The body was discovered around 10 pm by an elderly woman who had been walking her dog in the area. The woman told Police that she saw the dead man slumped over on a bus stop bench. She said that at first she thought he was inebriated and was sleeping it off. Initial reports confirm that the deceased was recently released from the State Prison at Florence where he was serving a three-year sentence for sexual molestation of a minor. No weapon was found and no suspects were identified by Police. The investigation continues. 

Killing requires a certain mindset. Regret requires a certain mindset. Hell, even doubt requires a certain mindset. But hesitation, ohhh, hesitation, that requires six men to load your coffin into a C130 for the trip back to the States. Colonel J.B. Lindsay

             The jungle was particularly quiet. The rains had stopped for now, but it didn’t make things any better. Smothering, oppressive humidity was quickly replaced by a relentless heat. It was 5 am, and Jack was already drenched with sweat, wringing out his bandana often. Vietnam is either too damn hot or too damn humid or both. Today was particularly bad. However, Jack accepted it, because the Viet Cong also had to wipe sweat from their brows and that small movement was all he needed to spot a target. Moving his scope slowly and methodically in the dim light of dawn, he scanned a path that ran along the river’s shoreline.

For the past three days Jack had been coming to this location above the My Tho river, about two klicks from the firebase in the Delta. The area fringed a particularly dense section of jungle and overlooked a series of deep green hillsides. Jack recognized the location he was in as a good ‘fishing hole’. It provided an extraordinary amount of concealing brush while offering a clear field of vision into the river valley and along the ridgeline of the low hills across from his position.

             Intelligence had come in that Charlie (Code word for North Vietnamese Army and their Viet Cong insurgent counterparts) was starting to move through these coordinates, in an effort to extend the Ho Chi Minh trail closer to areas that the U.S. military controlled. It was Jack’s job to discourage this project, or at least slow up progress until Uncle Sam could refocus efforts from elsewhere and deal with the situation more directly and substantially. Uncle Sam has a way of achieving substantive results around here.

            Jack scoped the valley again. As the day wore on, the foliage changed in hue. Large colorful birds appeared, then were quickly gone again, squealing as they soared through the mists that were rising from the humid jungle floor.

Jack held his upper body still, moving only his eyes. Then carefully, slowly and systematically lifting his spotting glasses when something required scrutiny. He was not the only one in the jungle looking for movement. After the morning passed without any enemy encounters, he decided to rest. He slipped a few feet behind his cover and was now completely hidden from view in the canopy of bamboo leaves and grasses. He opened his canteen and took a few sips of the warm water, then un-wrapped a Hershey’s bar: ahhh luxury!

            He first stretched his legs then his back. Once he felt his stiff muscles release, he closed his eyes for a few moments. His breathing slowed and his mind began conjuring peculiar scenes and images quite removed from his present reality.

Then, just as sleep was overtaking him, he heard voices……. Jack didn’t move. He opened his eyes, listening. He heard sounds of people moving about and more speaking. The noise was coming from above him, echoing from just across the river. With great stealth he slipped back into position and raised his weapon. Peering through the scope mounted on his Remington sniper rifle he was able to see three N.V.A. (North Vietnamese Army) in uniform standing at the edge of a small clearing. They appeared to be looking directly at him, moving their arms back and forth, pointing and speaking animatedly. He found this unnerving at first, but then they began consulting a map of some sort, mitigating his concerns. After watching them for a few moments longer, it became clear that they were not aware of his presence. They appeared to be studying the area, plotting the course of a new trail, ahead of others who would follow with the tools needed to knock down the heavy vegetation. This was why they sent Jack into the jungle. Slipping the thumb safety on the top of the rifle forward to reveal a red dot, the rifle was ready to fire. He held his sights on the man closest to the trail entrance. Taking this man out first would slow the retreat of the other two who would instinctively attempt to escape back into the jungle from where they had emerged. They would have to step over the body in that effort. Jack worked hard at developing follow up shots. He squeezed the trigger then immediately chambered another round. It took a split second for the sound of the first shot to register in the minds of the two remaining NVA. It took slightly more time for the rush of adrenaline to surge into their brains. It took a millisecond too long to decide on the fight or flight option. Jack pulled the trigger again, then automatically chambered a third round. The lone man now had two bodies to negotiate. He was making a frantic and valiant effort to return to the protective cover of the jungle, futile though it was. Jack squeezed the trigger for the third and last time. The follow up was text book perfect. Jack had not missed an opportunity to maximize his count. The N.V.A. were going to need another three surveyors.

      A Remington 700, 30.06 rifle, a canteen and several Hershey chocolate bars are the three things Jack specifically takes into the jungle now that he works alone and only on short stay missions. He once worked with a spotter, a black kid named William “Willy” Long. He was known as Long Willy around the base, because he had survived almost two tours of in-country duty and because he was hung like a Cambodian elephant. There are few secrets on a firebase.

            Willy was an independent and strong willed individual. When first arriving in 1964 at 19 years of age he was immediately assigned to Johnny detail. This meant cleaning out the officer’s latrine bucket by bucket, then burning it. He refused, choosing instead to draw the ire of an irritable and voluble Second Lieutenant. Willy said that carrying another man’s shit was not why he enlisted. He wanted into the fight.

          Willy was unique. He had enlisted, unlike most of the boys over here now. This was especially true of the white ones. After hearing the latrine story and Willy telling the officer to shove it, Jack requested to have Willy assigned as his spotter. He liked men with character and the courage of their convictions and more importantly, Jack trusted men with those qualities. In Viet Nam partners had to be able to rely on one another completely. The officer, a Second ‘Looey’ named Visuers, tried to block the request. Jack appealed to the base commander, Colonel J.B. Lindsay, who immediately authorized the assignment. Visuers had never understood why Lindsay treated Jack with such favor. It angered the man to his core, so he made a promise to himself, “One day these men would pay a price.”

      The intervention of Colonel Lindsay put Jack’s plan back on track. Jack and Willy became partners. Over the course of five months they were able to achieve a record number of successful missions together. Sometimes they would chopper into a hot zone, flying just above the jungle canopy. The helicopter would touch down briefly in a clearing and they would jump and run. Occasionally, they would do this while under enemy fire with the door gunner manning a swivel mount M60 machine gun laying down suppression rounds to buy them a few precious seconds. From there they would begin a stealthy trek through some of the most dangerous areas in the country. They always knew what the other was thinking, and that gave them an advantage. Willy was also very strong and was able to carry additional provisions that allowed them to remain isolated for extended periods. This also gave them an advantage. They would sometimes dig in and sit still, allowing an enemy platoon to pass them by, giving the impression that the area was safe. They would then continue to lay in wait. Eventually an N.V.A. command would follow and they would take out that high value target.  

      On one mission they were looking for an N.V.A. sniper who had been plinking at American convoys, in-country from Da Nang. The guy was good, really good, so the two knew they had their hands full.

      “Willy,” Jack said, “Let’s move north, then swing east and see if we can get a position on him.”

      “That works for me, but we’ll have to hump it hard if we’re gonna get there by nightfall.”

      “Yeh, I thought of that too, but, we can drop everything we don’t need and go in light.”

      “Gonna cut down the amount of time we can spend looking for him.”

      “I know, but I just have a feeling about this one.”

      “Cool brother. I trust your instincts.” 

      They moved quickly, carrying only their canteens and weapons. Some thick foliage slowed them just once, as they attempted to circumvent a trail that was too exposed for comfort. After four hours of pushing over and around the many small hills in the area they came up behind the location that was reported to harbor the Charlie shooter. There were a series of rolling hummocks with one large hill overshadowing a valley.  The hill was a slide area with very little vegetation on it. The hummocks were saturated with growth. “Hell of a place to lose a goat, certainly no place you wanted to be beating around looking for a single shooter,” Jack thought.

      “He’s gonna be up there somewhere Willy. You see anything?”

            “Not yet Jack.” Willy had set up his spotting scope and was glassing the high ground. In the distance there was the sound of approaching vehicles, most likely another U.S. convoy bringing supplies out of the port city of Da Nang.

            “Look,” Jack said. He had been searching the hills with the scope on his rifle. He spotted something that caught his interest.

             “Where?” Willy asked.

            “See the slide area?”

            “Yeh.”

            “Do those look like foot prints leading from the top to that lone bush mid way down the slope?”

            Willy followed where Jack was pointing. “Damn.”

            “Maybe I should run a few rounds into that brush and see what comes out.” Jack said with a slight smile as he began settling in to take the shots. Completely convinced that that was where the N.V.A. sniper had been shooting from.

            Willy was looking intently at the tracks. “Wait,” he said.

            Jack held fire. “What?”

            “Those foot prints look strange to me.” Willy was concentrating hard as he adjusted his spotting scope.

            “What do you mean strange?”

            “Looks to me that whoever made them coming down stepped in them again going back up---It’s a trap.”

            Jack refocused on the tracks. “You could be right. Good catch. He’s trying to get us to reveal our location by firing into that empty bush. Damn! He is good!”

            “Ok, so now the question, where is he?”

            “Only one way to find out,” Jack said with a smile.

            Willy understood. “I’ll give you ten minutes Jack then I’ll start shooting branches.”

            Jack moved away from Willy, finding a spot that gave him a clear field of fire into the entire hillside. Still certain that the N.V.A. sniper would be on high ground he waited as he watched for movement above him.

            “Ten minutes are up,” Willy said to himself. He pushed the safety off of his M15 rifle. Lifting up he took a quick shot into the general direction of the bush then got his head down. Nothing. He took another quick shot, immediately ducking once more. Nothing. On his third shot the answering fire was instantaneous, clipping Willy’s helmet as he got his head down almost a little too slowly. One more time, he rose up, firing into the bush. The response shot from the sniper never came. Instead, Willy heard Jack’s rifle fire from a short distance to his left.

      Jack had been scanning the hill when Willy fired his first round. He didn’t see any movement. After Willy’s second shot, with no response, Jack wondered if the N.V.A. sniper had left the area. Then as Willy fired the third time, Jack just happened to be looking at the exact spot in which the enemy had been secluded. Jack sent a single round off, neutralizing the threat. Jack and Willy had racked up another mark in the win column.

      They were able to get down to the road and hitch a ride with the convoy that they had earlier heard approaching. The  two men were delivered to where they had dropped their gear and provisions. Quickly making their way back to the LZ (landing zone) they were picked up by a chopper and were home before night settled on the Delta.

  The time they spent together was some of the most valued in Jack’s life. They would talk of their lives back home and their ambitions. On furlough they would spend that time together. They had become close friends and had a great respect for each other. Willy was simply the best glass man in the Corps and a very able Marine in combat, but tragically, like thousands of others over here, he gave it all for his country.

Jack and Willy had set up on a ridge overlooking a village 10 klicks in-country from the Ton San Nhut airfield, doing what they had done dozens of times before. The Tet holiday was approaching and there was something stirring.  A major offensive was being orchestrated by the NVA. With so much activity near the city everyone was put on alert. As it turned out, Charlie was planning to use the holiday to catch the U.S. and SVNA (South Vietnamese Army) forces off guard. Fortunately the offensive proved to be a disaster for the North Vietnamese, but it set everyone on edge. Now every unit in the country was under orders to keep up the pressure on the North’s forces to push them back. Hueys were flying constantly, ferrying troops in and out of one hot zone or another. Colonel Lindsay’s men were among the finest in the service and were usually called upon to do the heavy lifting.

Willy and Jack were assigned to a sector that had more than normal movement. The two had been crawling from rice paddy to rice paddy for two days, moving cautiously to avoid any detection from the locals who would report their presence and bring all hell down on them. No one was more despised than snipers. Even the good guys regarded them as pariahs within the ranks. They weren’t seen as regular fighting men, rather as ghosts that struck from nowhere only to disappear into thin air. They then would resurface unexpectedly to kill from the shadows once more. Snipers engage in psychological warfare which has as much wearing effect on the enemy as does combat. Americans and N.V.A. alike employed this method of terrorizing each other. Snipers, having the ability to kill from hundreds of yards out, are demoralizing. No one wanted to feel insecure everywhere they happened to be, every minute of the day. That, of course, is the desired result, but the prevailing wisdom gravitated to the rationalization that if one side didn’t use them then the other wouldn’t either. So snipers were not only thought of in the same frame of reference as snakes and trip wires, but were considered a particularly valued target. Charlie wanted Jack dead. In fact, so badly did they want this that they put a reward on his head. This made Jack and Willy even more vulnerable to being reported by the locals.

It took them three days to finally get to their coordinates. When they did, they found cover to be sparse. The two decided to take up a position just below a small rise overlooking a well worn trail, then they began building concealment. Hiding is a crucial part of the job. Two things are certain in Nam, you will kill, or you will be killed. The second is guaranteed for a sniper if concealment is not taken seriously. Taking the time to blend in means the difference in how many kills you can get from a location before a V.C. sharpshooter finds you and attempts to even the score. V.C. bullets are quite lethal, so detail is everything in the jungle. The Viet Cong and their friends live here, and have for thousands of years, they know when something is not right. Just like a wild hog in the desert that knows instinctively when someone is in his back yard. The trick is to become a part of the land and breathe with it. Willy was a natural and quickly became good at dressing a location. It was very important to blend into the surroundings. Anything looking out of place would result in unwanted scrutiny and an unfortunate and untimely demise.

While Jack checked his rifle Willy found some fallen bamboo and dragged it over to their location. He laid it down, slightly angled to the trail, giving it a random look. Next he placed a few vines over the pile to make it look aged and to offer more cover. He left a small opening offering a visual of the trail. Willy then set a stack of rocks under the opening as a rest for the Remington’s bipod. Then he set up the small tripod for his spotter’s scope, they settled in for the wait.

Jack removed his helmet and replaced it with a jungle cap. This was his lucky hat. It was one that his brother had mailed to him that past Christmas. It was a dark camouflage NRA ball cap that looked like it had already come through two wars. His brother had picked it up at a gun show: he knew Jack would appreciate it. Jack had replaced the sweat band a dozen times and would likely do so another dozen times before he would consider getting a new hat.

            They only had to wait about an hour before a small platoon of V.C. came into range. The Viet Cong had been concealed by the tall elephant grass that grew on the flats which were predominant in this area. When they emerged it was almost magical. The group was 300 meters out when Jack first picked them up. It’s amazing how small a man appears at that range, yet how vulnerable in a snipers sights. Jack took a wind reading. Even though the breeze was mostly still, at this range a one mile an hour crosswind can move a bullet off the kill zone, Jack hated taking second shots, especially mercy shots. They consumed valuable seconds and offered up his location. Detail is everything. Jack settled the Remington then started slowing his breathing. At 260 meters the lead squad moved into an opening between two stands of trees, exposing six of them. They looked cautious, moving tentatively, as though expecting trouble. Jack took aim at the one bringing up the rear, dispatching him cleanly. The sound of the shot reverberated through the jungle. This confused Charlie for a moment and before the other five realized what had happened he put rounds into two more of them. Then something happened that changed Jack’s life forever, setting in motion a series of events that he couldn’t have imagined.

          Exploding glass, blood and brain matter sprayed onto Jack. The percussion of a fast moving round striking bone struck his ears. Then the echo of a rifle shot from a distance. An N.V.A. sniper had located them. He must have come in ahead of the platoon, and once Jack fired Charlie established Jack and Willy’s position. Jack took an internal inventory, he was OK. He looked to his friend. Willy had taken a direct hit to the head, the bullet shattering his spotting glass. Willy had died instantly. Jack was going to be next if he didn’t get his balance back.

            Jack looked at Willy, his breath escaped. He tasted bile rise in his throat. Jack had seen more than his share of death in the jungle, but never had he lost someone so close to him. Jack had to regain his composure.  He saw the badly damaged spotting scope pointing just right of his position and determined that the bullet had travelled through the device. This was a hell of a shot. Willy never had a chance.

      Knowing that Willy had been glassing just ahead of the platoon when he was hit Jack had a good idea where to look. He was able to pin point the most likely spot in which the V.C. sniper would be hidden. Jack focused hard on a copse of trees near a small rise. Willy may have seen something in those same trees, but never had a chance to say anything. Jack would never know for certain, but the shooter had obviously spotted Willy first and with precision did what Jack would have done and had done 33 times already. The shooter couldn’t know Jack was there, or he would have sent another round off. Jack’s mind was racing. As he was straining to see any movement he heard a whizzing sound just inches from his head. “That fucker’s guessing, but damned near got it right,” Jack said to himself. “Breathe”. Jack held his position, slowly moving his scope. He was looking for anything, any sign at all. Then there it was, the sniper had shifted slightly in his perch, twelve feet up a tall, thick tree. Jack caught the movement, which is the stock the trade is made from, exactly what Jack was looking for. This was just like hunting deer at his fathers’ side, watching for the flick of an ear, or the lifting of an antlered head. This mistake made by the VC sniper would end his career. The shooter was nestled in- between two limbs, facing Jack’s position directly. He was N.V.A. regular army and looked to be very young, maybe 17 years old, which explained why he had made such a terrible error. Jack reflected on the boy’s youth, 17, an age that he would hold forever.

In a do or die situation Jack’s subconscious often takes over. Things unfold without conscious control. This was the case now. Jack never heard the Remington fire, never felt it buck against his shoulder, kicking hard as the escaping pressure from the exploding round forced the bullet out at five times the speed of sound and he certainly never remembered chambering a follow up round. He only slipped back into the here and now when he saw the enemy sniper slump and watched as the corpse released its grip on the rifle that had ended Willy’s life. The weapon dropped without sound or circumstance to the ground below. A lifeless set of eyes stared directly ahead with only the slightest expression of surprise. A drop of blood trickled down from the small hole in the middle of the forehead .

            The amazing thing is how fast things happen in real life crisis moments. Those horrific events that humans struggle to cope with; those that have one wishing for the previous second back again; the proverbial “Do Over” that life simply does not offer, regardless of the severity of the situation or the conviction of the victim. There was the time Jack was driving his uncle’s truck on a back road outside of Flagstaff in northern Arizona. His cousin and he had been smoking some reefer and drinking beer. They were taking a load of trash to the Town’s unofficial dump and decided to joy ride for a while. Jack had been driving since he was twelve years old and had a good feel for the momentum of a vehicle. He instinctively knew when he was going too fast for a turn or how much gas he should use to get the tail to slide around a corner without losing control. He had been accelerating and decelerating his way around one turn after another on the winding dirt road kicking up dust and having a real time of it. His cousin was hooting and hollering at each wild turn Jack made in the old Ford. Jack was even impressing himself with his skill at the wheel.

Jack’s cousin had grown up in a very protected environment with a matronly mother and a mild mannered father and had only recently started driving at the age of seventeen and a half. He convinced Jack to let him have a go at the wheel. Reluctantly, Jack pulled over and they switched sides, then Jack gave his cousin some basic instruction on handling the old truck. The kid had never driven a stick shift before, but to Jack’s surprise he caught on quickly. His cousin took it slowly for the first few turns, then, as his confidence grew he started emulating Jack’s driving. He began driving too fast for the road they were on and especially for his level of experience. Jack was about to suggested that he slow down when the truck began fish tailing. Jack reached for a seat belt. Jack’s cousin over corrected a couple of times before he swerved up an embankment and the truck flipped over. Jack was holding both ends of the safety belt when he went flying. The windshield popped out, Jack followed it. An assortment of garbage, tools, empty beer cans and a spare tire flew from the box. The last thing Jack saw was the truck continuing to roll over the road then down into a ravine just below where he was now lying.

Maybe it was the weed or the beer or just the luck of the young, but Jack was able to stand up. Taking a quick inventory of his condition he found himself to be intact. He had a couple of scrapes and his knee hurt, but otherwise he was OK.

He heard a loud “FUCK” come from over the ridge. When he scrambled over the road, to his horror, he saw what had happened. Jack saw his cousin’s entire left arm lying on the ground, torn from the shoulder. It had landed directly below the driver’s door, elbow bent with the watch still in place: the second hand still ticking. Jack couldn’t help thinking that the dismembered arm gave the impression of having simply dropped off. It was as though it had been improperly attached that morning; as though his cousin had been waiting for a light to change with his elbow resting on the door frame when it came loose and simply fell to the road. 

            Although Jack’s cousin had not been buckled in he had remained behind the wheel. But his arm was pinned at some point as the truck rolled over and over. It had been ripped free from his body. This accident and the subsequent severe injury happened, start to finish, in five seconds. They had gone from having a great time on a nice day to experiencing a horror that is, quite fortunately, reserved for an unfortunate few.

That is how it was for the Charlie shooter, sitting in the tree. One moment he was in complete control of his life---then he was not. The time it took for the shooter to take out Willy and for Jack to retaliate was the same five seconds out of eternity as that day near Flagstaff.

          In the confusion, when a surprise attack comes, getting priorities straight remains a challenge. Even to the most skilled professionals. It takes a great deal of discipline to let one’s training take over and to react effectively. This group of North Vietnamese army regulars surprisingly lacked this skill set. The N.V.A. were usually very well trained soldiers. As Jack focused back on the platoon he could see that they were still trying to get their bearings and figure out the shooting: what it was about, where it was coming from and where to gain cover. Jack reflexively dispatched another three of them before they started disappearing into the jungle. He was able to get another round into his now empty clip and took out one more man.

            Jack then turned his attention to his fallen friend. He put his hand on Willy’s shoulder. He saw Willy’s shattered skull. Willy’s helmet lay only a foot away, filled with blood and matter. “Oh Willy.” Jack vomited as his emotions hit him like a tsunami.  That was Jack’s worst day. He had never before had as many confirmed kills in one mission, but Willy was gone.

          A chopper flew in and retrieved Willy’s body. He was sent home to his family, his mother and sister. Willy had spoken to Jack about his family at length, as friends do. His dad was an abusive drunk who finally ended up stabbed to death in an alley behind a skid row bar in an area people like Jack seldom ventured. His mom held two jobs and was an on again, off again Baptist who ruled her house with a balance of love and discipline. Willy’s sister was a year younger than Willy. Willy once showed Jack a picture of her, and Jack thought that he just might be able to fall in love after all. It was an amazing photograph. Her name was Emma Jane. She had beautiful features. High cheek bones, bright eyes with a wry smile and a look of confidence that could shatter a man’s resolve.

            Willy was proud of Emma, speaking of her often and sharing her letters with Jack. She was on the Dean’s list in college and was an accomplished athlete who held a state record for the 100 yard hurdles in High School. She won a partial scholarship to University because of her grades and her significant athletic achievements, making school almost affordable.

Willy and Jack had made a mutual promise that if either was ever killed over here, they would personally contact the other’s family and deliver a box that each had assembled for just such an event. Jack knew this was going to be one of the most difficult promises he would ever keep.

          Once Jack returned to the firebase he had the radio dispatch clerk arrange the call. It was a very hard thing to do. Speaking to someone he knew so much about yet whom he had never met.

            “Hello.”  Emma answered the phone. Jack could hear the apprehension in her voice. It was two in the morning, her time.

            “Emma, my name is Jack Edwards. I’m a friend of Willy’s. I am afraid that I have some very bad news.”

            Emma began to cry. She knew. She asked only, “When”? 

            “A few hours ago---I’m so sorry.”

            “Were you with him Jack?” Emma asked.

            “Yes.”

            Jack told her what had happened, not knowing what else to do. He heard a commotion in the background, then Emma’s mother came on the line. He repeated the story, and although she was crushed by the news, she held together very well.

          She asked in a subdued voice, “Jack , do you know why Willy joined the military and why he signed up for a second tour?”

            Jack had never considered this and he and Willy never really discussed the issue. “No ma’am,” He said.

      “Willy was always the man of the house. He always did what he had to do to keep us together and to keep us as happy as we could be under the circumstances of our lives. He wanted the best for his little sister. He didn’t want to see her go through what I did--with a man who never loved me, who often beat his children and who left his family to fend for themselves.”

      “I’m not surprised that Willy would do whatever it took to protect his family.” Jack said evenly.

            She continued. “Willy wanted his sister to go to school and make something of her life, maybe even become a doctor. He wanted her to be independent and respected. Willy sent half of every paycheck home to us the entire time he was in the service. It was the best way he could find to take care of his family.” She stopped and Jack heard her take a deep breath. “Jack will you please come and see us when you’re back home? Willy has told us so much about you that we feel you’re almost part of the family, we know you live real close to us. Please promise you’ll come.” The pleading in Mrs. Long’s voice was heart breaking. He promised he would. “And now he’s gone,” she said as she began to cry softly. “Thank you for calling,” she said, then she hung up.

Jack heard the click as the line went dead. He put down the phone on his end, wiping the sweat from his forehead and the tears forming in his eyes. He walked slowly back to his quarters where he collapsed and slept. After that, Jack never worked with a spotter again. 

 

Below is the first chapter of my follow up book to Breathe.
 

 Breathe II

CHAPTER 1

She walked with a quickened pace. The scarf the woman wore covered most of her features, but the style of her dress and the way it fit belied her age. Though walking with purpose, her effeminate gait was still quite alluring. She clutched her oversized purse tightly and close to her breast. She glanced around furtively; as though looking for someone in particular, or anticipating trouble. Either way, it made her conspicuous. The streets were mostly empty. The crowds of workers that populate this section of downtown Phoenix during the day were now home, sitting down for supper and turning on the nightly news.

Standing near a stone stairway that led up to the double glass doors of a textile wholesaler were a group of young men. They watched her approach. Once she saw them, she conciously hurried her step and reset the grip on her purse. The men glared menacingly as she passed. These were not stragglers from the mass of workers who abandoned the area at 5 pm sharp. They were not waiting to catch a late bus. They made their living here, after the closed signs went up and the lights were turned off.

The woman glanced sideways ever so slightly as she made her way by the men. The staccato clicking of her heels, tapping rapidly on the cement walkway, made the only sound. It was a little unnerving, but she had done this before and knew what to expect.

As she worked her way farther up the block, she thought she heard someone following from a distance, "Good," she whispered to herself. Now about 20 steps from the corner, she was comfortable with the timing. Maintaining her pace she reached the intersection and turned right, stealing a peripheral glance back up the street as she did so, confirming that there was someone behind her. The woman could see that the man following was short and stocky and that he moved in a plodding manner. He was one of the men she had passed moments ago. She recognized the man’s build and his style of dress confirmed the identification for her. He had a nylon stocking on his head, a gangster fashion that she never understood, and the T shirt he wore had an image of a black fist on the front of it. This was her guy.

The buildings on either side of her were tall and windowless brick structures, this gave the street a canyon effect, making the area quite dark since the buildings were blocking the last light of day. She had taken only ten steps when she heard the man coming at a run. As soon as he rounded the corner he made his move. The woman made a gesture that suggested she had gripped her purse even more tightly. In fact, she had done just the opposite. Listening carefully and counting the man's steps she knew when he was right behind her. She turned and gasped as the man reached her and ripped the purse from her grasp. She let her arms go limp to insure that he didn't drag her to the ground. In a split second he had her bag and was now moving away quickly. He was fast, maybe too fast, she thought. He might make the far end of the street, and that wouldn’t be good. Looking down she saw that the tether was hanging limp. As the man ran off the thin cord attached to her belt and secured to the detonator in the purse tightened. As he took his first step away from her the tether pulled a pin free from the device hidden within the purse, activating the sequence that would set off a blasting cap. The timer was set to five seconds. ”One.” She reflected again on how fast this man was. “Two.” If he reached the street at the far end of the block in less than the five seconds she had planned others could be injured. “Three.” That mistake would be on her.

The woman watched anxiously as the man neared the end of the block. She continued to count. “Four.” She ducked into a shallow alcove that housed a side entrance to the building on her left. “Five.” She could only hope that the man was still between the two buildings and had not reached the street at the far end of the block.

Though she had heard a thousand explosions during her career in the military---and afterward, she never quite got used to the percussion. She felt the blast before she heard it. She had packed enough C4 into the purse to cut the man in two, but not so much that it would break windows, or even draw much attention. It would sound more like a tire blow out than a piece of ordinance detonating. At this time of day and in this area of town, no one was going to investigate anyway. At least, not until the man’s friends came looking for him.

Once the sound echoed and died she stepped back onto the street and walked quickly toward the corpse. The body was twisted at an odd angle, with the feet and torso both pointing north. A few strands of tissue and tendons were all that connected the upper to the lower body. She admired her work for only a moment as she continued to move toward the intersection. Emerging from the darkness and onto the street she looked casually around. It felt better being back in the sunlight, what was left of it anyway. She removed her scarf as she strolled at an even pace, revealing a full head of long red hair that fell past her shoulders. She wore it down to make it difficult for any witnesses to describe her face. She stuffed her scarf into her jacket pocket, then removed the jacket itself. She carried it draped over her arm. From under her shirt she removed a small handbag and simply held it casually in her hand. At a glance the woman now appeared to be someone completely different than the one who was followed into the deserted side street by the now deceased purse snatcher.

At the sound of heels clicking Sam folded the newspaper he was reading and started the old Power Wagon. As soon as the old truck roared to life the woman rounded the corner directly in front of him. Their eyes met and both smiled. In fact, she had had a huge grin on her face since completing her mission. It was good to be back in the business, so to speak. She pulled open the passenger door to the big truck and climbed in. Sam put the truck in gear and began driving away. Turning to face him she put her jacket and clutch on the seat between them.

Sam asked, “So how was your day dear?”

“Same ole same ole,” came the reply.

“I’m starving, where do you want to eat?”